Chapter 5 – Sampling the PCT
Is the Pacific Crest Trail the greatest of the three long trails in the USA? It sure felt like it when I hiked that short bit. I know the Appalachian Trail well enough, but I’ll admit I’ve yet to set so much as a toe on the Continental Divide Trail, so my opinion may not mean much.
The trail to Snowy Lake starts at Rainy Pass on route 20. I’ll kill the suspense now before it kills you: despite the threatening trailhead name and menacing clouds, it didn’t rain. The first two or three miles are in a beautiful open forest. Then, it all goes uphill from there. The climbing starts and so do the views. It doesn’t stop until Cutthroat Pass, roughly the halfway point of this first day. The climbing eases that is. The views, they improve, if that was even possible. I won’t waste digital ink, so I’ll just cut to the chase. The views were great right to the very end.
My failed attempts at plans A, B and C in the morning meant I got a late afternoon start. By the time I reached the first pass, the sun was starting to set and until I made it to the camp, its last rays worked relentlessly to pierce the thick clouds with their warm light. It created a unique crown over the surrounding mountains.
Thru-hikers were chilling by the campfire. There was Real Deal, Overload, Fire Cracker, Neon and Oatmeal. Fire Cracker wanted smores, but no one had lugged the ingredients to make them. I happened to have a smore-flavoured energy bar that I happily gave her. Real Deal wondered what else I had in my bag. His curious mind scored him a caramel walnut energy bar. He wouldn’t take my trail magic for free though so in return, he gave me Idahoan applewood smoked bacon mashed potatoes – that was long. I’ll eat them with pasta, thru-hiker style.
We stayed up late by the fire, apparently preventing Real Deal from getting sleep in his hammock. When you backpack or thru-hike, time becomes trivial compared to other things like rain, light, cold… And enjoying a late night campfire!
The chilly morning greeted us with an undercast and heavy condensation in our tents. The next few hours were invested hiking back to the car, soaking in the glorious views along the way.
Life lesson: Don’t plan too much, improvising is fun.
Mileage: 31.3 km (19.4 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,071 m (3,515 ft)
Chapter 6 – Here comes the rain
I raced to the next trailhead on a high. I thought of leaving everything and heading to California to start the PCT. Five months of this would be an awesome adventure. Then I realized it would mean going through the mountains of California in the snow and finishing in Washington sometime in January or February which is the absolute craziest thought I’ve ever had. That and I don’t think my boss would’ve shared my enthusiasm. After all, a man’s gotta eat, right?
I wolfed down a pot of pasta with Ragu sauce at the trailhead. Don’t judge me, Ragu sauce is so unnatural I figured it couldn’t go bad if it stayed in the car for a few days. The goal was to set up camp at about 8km and then get an alpine start the next morning to summit 8,128 foot Crater Mountain. The hike up was somewhat of a slog compared to the PCT. Few views and countless switchbacks. The lack of sleep and 10+ miles plus elevation I already had in me that day didn’t help. I even had to do something new: take a breather. I reckon that’s how getting older feels.
The sky was blue when I started. I thought it would never rain. I might’ve thought I was bulletproof too. Rookie mistake. When I got to the camp, I felt driblets of rain on my arms. I looked up and the sky sure wasn’t blue anymore. I just had enough time to pitch my tent and throw myself in. Then, it started falling. The rain beat the ground senseless for about two hours, like the ground had said something bad about the rain’s mother. I passed out. My thru-hiker friends must’ve been really wet and cold.
The next morning, I started for the summit. I had breakfast on a small cliff. The clouds were hanging low, but I could see a hint of blue through them so I thought if I hurried, I’d be treated to an undercast. I can be so naïve sometimes..! I trudged on past Crater Lake through clouds so thick I felt like they were slowing me down. I barely avoided a wasp nest that I literally only saw at the last second. The rain got me wetter and colder at every step. I still felt very good about my chances of seeing an undercast though, so I kept going. Above 7,500 feet, it was more of a scramble on wet rock with steep drops on either side. There was no life here, you really felt like you were climbing a crater on the moon. Well that’s not quite true. I saw a lonely yellow flower and a few resilient bits of grass.
Remember The Lion King? I know, it’s been 20 years, but what I’m talking about is also a 3-image meme. Simba and his dad, Mufasa, are sitting on a rock looking at plains with lush vegetation under a beautiful African sunset. Mufasa tells Simba everything the light touches will be his one day. The young cat is impressed, but his attention shifts to a dark shadowy part of the landscape and he asks his dad about it. Mufasa answers: “That is [insert name of shady city or neighbourhood], you must never go there”. I felt like I was where Simba wasn’t allowed to go. And, spoiler alert, Mufasa dies in the flick, so I couldn’t count on him to save my skin.
The rain had been relentless since the second I finished my breakfast and visibility was now lower than low. It was getting dangerous. The fine line between perseverance and stubbornness or recklessness is easily clouded by summit fever. Cool heads prevailed though and I turned around. My first aborted summit, believe it or not. It had to happen. I even had technical difficulties with my GPS and was struggling to find my way back since I couldn’t see three feet in front of me. I managed to backtrack to the obvious part of the trail and descended quickly to the lake, where three men were camped. They too had cancelled their plans of grandeur and were packing it out. I stuffed my wet gear in my wet pack and hoofed it down back to the car.
Life lesson: If someone ever tells you it doesn’t rain in the Pacific Northwest, they’re out of their damn mind!
Mileage: 28.8 km (17.9 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,880 m (6,170 ft)